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The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Campaign spending bills are where the action is, with the big one being public financing for candidates.

If gauging the prospects for government reform measures in the upcoming legislative session were a weather forecast, it would be partly cloudy at best, downright gloomy at worst.

Legislators did make some moves last session to improve government ethics and transparency. They weren’t earth-shattering and for the most part they affected how elections are run and how lobbyists do their jobs — not how the lawmakers themselves operate.

And this came after a spate of scandals involving public officials — including the bribery convictions of two former legislators — inspired the creation of a high-profile commission that proposed many far-reaching government reforms.

If those proposals couldn’t fare better than they did during a session where government transparency was a key focus, what chance do they have in a session that convenes Jan. 17 in the massive shadow of the Maui wildfires this past August?

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Some of these good-government proposals would cost money, after all. It’s easy to imagine the Senate and House money chairs shooting down even low-cost reforms in the convenient cause of helping Lahaina recovery efforts and strengthening wildfire prevention efforts statewide.

But before you despair of seeing any sunshine at all emanating from the Capitol in the next few months, remember that there are still vocal proponents of reform who intend to be heard.

And shortly after adjournment in May, many legislators will be seeking reelection. We doubt that voters will have forgotten about the need for serious reforms, even if some lawmakers might hope they will. Civil Beat’s election coverage will certainly zero in on what incumbents have or haven’t done to improve the way government operates.

Does all this get us back to a forecast that’s only partly cloudy? It depends. Here’s our breakdown of the prospects for some of the most significant reform proposals.

Public Financing of Campaigns

Incumbents currently enjoy such a significant financial advantage over potential challengers that they can pretty much hold office as long as they want, especially in a Legislature with no term limits.

The obvious solution is to significantly expand public financing of campaigns. This would have the twofold effect of bringing in new blood and making elected officials less beholden to those who contribute to their campaign.

Senate Bill 1543 would have done just that. Remarkably, it received unanimous support in both the Senate and House, but differing versions forced it into conference committee. In one of the session’s darkest moments, it was whittled down by the money chairs from a $30 million plan beginning with the 2026 election to a $700,000 plan that would take five years to implement to, finally, nothing at all.

There’s no doubt that this issue will resurface next session.

Voters cast ballots Saturday in Wailuku.
Political challengers would have a better shot at knocking off incumbents, and candidates in general might be less beholden to contributors, if public financing of campaigns is expanded. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

“We’re going guns blazing for (public) campaign financing,” said Camron Hurt, program director for Common Cause Hawaii, calling it the organization’s top legislative priority.

Common Cause won’t be alone. The State Campaign Spending Commission also plans to seek expansion of public financing of campaigns.

Senate Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads co-introduced SB 1543 last session and is ready to try again.

“I’m going to be one of the folks pushing for it,” Rhoads said, but he added, “I think Lahaina actually hurts our chances of passing it quite a bit. I’m not sure the financial situation for the state is as dire as some people are saying, but it certainly isn’t any better because of Lahaina, and public financing will require, at least somewhere down the road, some significant amount of money.”

“It’s hard to handicap these things,” Rhoads said. “I thought that last year we had about a 50-50 chance of getting it passed and it didn’t make it. This year, I’d say it’s a little lower, maybe a 40% chance, but I wouldn’t say it’s beyond the realm of possibility.”

Year-Round Legislature 

Rhoads would give far less than a 40% chance for the resurrection of another measure he co-introduced last year, Senate Bill 149, asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment to establish a year-round Legislature.

About 40% less, as in zero.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. Legislative leaders often point to the current tight time deadlines to justify operating behind closed doors for the sake of expediency. That excuse would be gone because the bill would have required the Legislature to convene at least once a month.

lt also would have prohibited legislators from holding other jobs, thus reducing potential conflicts of interest.

Rhoads’ Judiciary Committee even amended the measure so that the Legislature would finally have been subject to the Sunshine Law that ensures open discussion of the people’s business.

Chair Judiciary Karl Rhoads during mail in ballot hearing held in room 016 at the Capitol.
Sen. Karl Rhoads says one of the measures he co-introduced last session — expanding public financing of campaigns — has a shot at a comeback next session, but he holds out no hope for another one calling for a year-round legislative session. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019)

After it passed his committee it ran into a roadblock in the Ways and Means Committee, and Rhoads doesn’t see that changing next session.

“I don’t know if I would bother to hear it under the circumstances,” he said.

House Judiciary Chair David Tarnas doesn’t think legislators should be the ones pushing the idea.

“I think the discussion about making the Legislature full time is a big issue,” Tarnas said in May. “It’s a systemic reform, which I think really should be left up to a constitutional convention. And I would support a constitutional convention to address this issue.”

Civil Beat has long endorsed holding a Con-Con, but also believes it would be entirely appropriate to send the full-time Legislature question directly to voters in 2024.

Clearly, that won’t be happening.

Restrictions On Campaign Contributions

Thanks to the Campaign Spending Commission, the prospects seem better for reviving at least some of the bills concerning campaign contributions that fell short last session.

For example, the commission wants to bring back a version of House Bill 724, which would have prohibited state and county contractors and grantees, as well as their owners, officers and immediate family members, from contributing to candidates while their contracts or grants were in effect.

The measure to stop a common but corrupt form of coordinated campaign contributions sailed through the House and Senate with only a minor amendment sending it to conference committee. There, it died without another word.

The compact legislative session when so many decisions are being made is simply not the time for lawmakers to be accepting money.

A revised version will delete “owners” from the restriction, according to minutes of the commission’s Oct. 11 meeting, “to avoid a possible constitutional challenge” because shareholders might be construed as owners.

That’s not a dealbreaker, especially since the prohibition would still apply to “officers,” who are often “owners” anyway.

We also encourage legislators to reconsider Senate Bill 627, which would have allowed the use of campaign funds to pay for child care and to care for household members, and House Bill 727, which in its original form would have ended the practice of candidates regifting their campaign contributions to charities or other candidates.

And then there’s the matter of legislators taking in campaign donations during the session. In 2022 they were banned from holding in-session fundraising events, and last session House Bill 726 would have prohibited even accepting contributions during session. It got unanimous approval in the House, but Rhoads shot it down in his Senate Judiciary Committee, saying he didn’t think it was fair to incumbents.

The Campaign Spending Commission is bringing the measure back this session, and we can only hope that Rhoads, who is on the right side of many reform issues, will reconsider his opposition. The compact legislative session when so many decisions are being made is simply not the time for lawmakers to be accepting money.

It Doesn’t Always Take A Law Change

Perhaps hardest to predict is the potential for lawmakers to simply change the way they do things.

Some improvements could be achieved not by passing new laws but through Senate or House rule changes. These require simple majority votes, but they rarely occur mid-session because there aren’t enough rank-and-file lawmakers who are willing to challenge the entrenched leaders.

Or those leaders could voluntarily reform how they do business without a rule change. For instance, some committee chairs are much more open than others about how they operate when it comes to holding public hearings and allowing all committee members to have their say before amending or deferring bills.

It’s known as a “cattle call.” At the very end of the chaotic conference committee period, lawmakers cram into a single room as the fates of dozens of bills are decided. Legislators could choose a better way of doing things. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Will any of this occur in 2024? We’ll have to stay tuned and watch closely. In the meantime, here are a few of the most significant procedural changes that have been proposed by reform advocates:

— Committees need to pass fewer bills with deliberate defects that force them into Senate-House conference committees late in the session, when closed-door dealmaking often determines their fate.

Rhoads said there are legitimate reasons to insert defects into some bills because they’re not yet complete but still have potential. But he also admits it’s an overused practice.

“I’m sure there are chairs that defect everything because they want it all to go to conference, not because they necessarily want to kill them all, but they want to use them for horse-trading,” he said. “I don’t do much of that. If I think the bill’s ready to pass, I don’t put a defective date on it.”

The money chairs already wield immense power. Letting them hold sway over non-fiscal measures is simply overkill.

— When a bill would require spending, the committee that initially passes it should establish an estimated dollar amount instead of leaving it blank.

There actually are already rules in both chambers that call for the chairs of subject committees and money committees to consult early and often about spending bills to determine what resources are available and what appropriation amounts they should contain. Lawmakers need to stop ignoring those rules.

— When a bill doesn’t require spending, it shouldn’t be referred to the money committee. And for that matter, legislative leaders should cease the practice of poisoning proposed measures at birth by referring them to so many committees that they have no chance of running the gauntlet.

The chairs of the Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees already wield immense power in the Hawaii Legislature. Letting them hold sway over non-fiscal measures is simply overkill.

Versions of all these suggestions — and much more — were contained in a Bill of Rights proposed by that special reform commission that generated so much hope for sunshine ahead of the last legislative session.

It was killed by a committee chair after a public hearing but before the rest of the committee could even discuss it in public.

Which, come to think of it, is another power-play practice that should cease if we really want bluer skies ahead.

Read this next:

Beth Fukumoto: Marilyn Lee's Career Is A Lesson In Maintaining Balance In Politics

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair, John Hill and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for this article. I am in favor of reforming the system (Constitutional Convention) . However, I am not in favor of term limits for legislators because it's silly to force a good legislator out of office based on some arbitrary time limit. We need good, experienced legislators and I'm never in favor of any forced retirement based on age or time. If someone's doing a good job, let them keep doing it, for goodness sake. And I mean that literally. For goodness. It's a good thing to do, keeping good people in office.Besides, legislators already have term limits. They have to get re-elected. What we need to do is educate voters in those areas that keep re-electing "bad" legislators about what they are doing to the rest of the state by keeping a bad legislator in office. Also, of course, we need to make substantial reforms (Con-Con) to change the way committee chairs are able to kill bills, election reform, and MUCH better checks and balances (accountability) for rules and laws that are in place.

Vanessa_Ott · 1 month ago

Agree 100% with year round legislature. We need them to concentrate on doing the peoples business. We have a year round judiciary, a year round executive branch we need a year round legislature. We are not Rome. They are already paid for this in there wages and they really shouldn't be working at banks, law firms, insurance companies or construction firms, those are all conflicts of interest. There only job is to serve the people. We can't have a mad rush at the end of the session to pass 3 out of 150 bills and table everything else.

TheMotherShip · 1 month ago

I thought Rhoads objection was the ban of in session contributions was unfair, but he was ok with a blanket ban on donations to anyone during that time frame?

Keala_Kaanui · 1 month ago

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